What’s better than a surprise four-day weekend? How about a potentially lifesaving vaccination?
Students in Chicago Public Schools will get both next week, when the district closes schools on Friday for what it’s calling Vaccination Awareness Day. Students already have the Veterans Day holiday off on Thursday, so it’s a long weekend.
Instead of classes, four high schools will host regional vaccination clinics. Anyone eligible for the vaccine ― that now includes children 5 years of age and older ― is encouraged to stop by, or to get the shot elsewhere.
Chicago city employees will also receive two hours of paid leave on Friday to take their kids to get vaccinated.
With more than 340,000 students across 636 schools, Chicago Public Schools is the third-largest U.S. school district, after New York and Los Angeles. Given that reach, school district leaders hope investing in a day off now can prevent pandemic-related closures in the future.
“It is rare that we make a late change to the school calendar, but we see this as an important investment in the future of this school year and the health and wellbeing of our students, staff, and families,” schools CEO Pedro Martinez wrote in a letter to families announcing the day off. “I hope you will strongly consider getting your children vaccinated on Vaccination Awareness Day.”
Portions of the district are woefully undervaccinated. Data obtained by the Chicago Teachers Union this week shows that just 47% of eligible public school students are vaccinated, compared with 58% of that age group citywide.
An analysis by WBEZ Chicago found racial disparities and economic divides are reflected in the city’s vaccination rates. In the relatively affluent neighborhood of Lincoln Park, for instance, 89% of eligible children are vaccinated. But in the southern Chicago community of Englewood, the rate is just 16%.
“My mom and my stepdad, they’ve been working 24/7 and they each have two jobs and they’re basically busy all the time,” Yobany Trinidad, a high school sophomore, told the NPR station. Trinidad was turned away from a vaccine clinic because he wasn’t accompanied by a parent.
The teachers’ union welcomed the vaccine push in a statement Thursday and encouraged everyone eligible, including parents, educators and staff, to get the shot. The union also urged the district to “lessen the burden” on working families by opening more than just four vaccine sites.
“The district should set up a vaccination clinic at every school, organize after-school events and provide significant incentives for families,” union President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement. “Claiming that ‘everything is fine’ while short-changing the safety of other people’s children is no way to build trust.”